Saturday. 04.02.2023

Immigrants, winter and the labyrinth of mental health

Woman winter lonely lonelyness seaside

Days are longer now and all of the sudden, without even realizing, we will get to the Summer Solstice in the North Hemisphere, a time of the year where we celebrate days as the religious pagan-inspired ‘Juhannus’. A time to celebrate warmth, light and what this means to us as sentient animals, nevertheless animals.

In the peak of the winter, Finland from north to south can vary from not having the sun rising for days to around 5 hours of sun, most of them hidden behind a thick wall of clouds. Experiencing that for some months, plus the below zero temperatures and a shift in people’s mood has a toll on us.

Last winter, my first full winter in Finland, was probably the worst I experienced till now. A mix of cultural adaptation, relationship breakup, lacking friends, surviving job precariousness and economical struggles, studying about belongingness when I felt completely dislocated in this country… these were the perfect ingredients to my latent anxiety issues starting to come up again.

This was not new to me. Before, still in Portugal I struggled with anxiety and it lead me to a slight heart-stroke five years ago. When I started to feel the same symptoms here (lack of sleep, pain in my shoulders and neck, heartburn…), I started to freak out.

The way I dealt with it at that time, after being diagnosed, was first through medication and after with psychotherapy to avoid getting back into the same unhealthy behaviors I had.

I must confess I am a workaholic. And I still struggle with it, but therapy worked wonders, and now, most of the times I can dodge the bullet.

The thing was that in Finland, when I started to realize that these symptoms were coming back, with the bonus of all those things I previously stated, my first reaction was to go to the health center and expose my situation. As I already stated in previous articles, I still don’t have Kela (Finnish social security) coverage and what it implies.

At the health center

The doctor at the health center made me fill two self-diagnose sheets, one for depression and another for anxiety. After a brief appointment, I’m out of there, clueless of what just happened and I felt lost, and without answers.

I knew beforehand through my work colleagues that the mental health in Finland is not taken under consideration as it should most of the times. All in all, Finland is on the 23rd position on the suicide rate ranking this year, leading the Nordic countries poll. The harsh environmental conditions and maybe some cultural-historical issues related, make this country a hostile place to spend the seasons between summer and spring.

My research kept going with a lot of obstacles, mostly due to the language and societal taboo of sharing experiences related to mental health. Online, I found some services church related, mostly religious-oriented counseling. Not my cup of tea, really. I preferred something more pragmatic in my sense of understating things.

I explained my mental health ordeals and asked for a personal appointment. The person on the other side of the phone said the solution was that I should find a better paid job, then my life would improve. I said thanks and hang up, then I cried in despair

That’s when I found the website of the association responsible for the Finnish mental health. I skimmed it back and forth until I found something that caught my attention: they advertise a service of support and help for foreigners, free of charge. According to the website, they provide crisis support for immigrants and non-immigrants, from traumatic events, suicidal thoughts till difficulties in cultural adaptation.

I felt this could be the answer, even though it was kind of weird putting marital problems, suicidal behaviors and cultural adaptation anxiety all in the same box.

Suicide hotline, just in office hours

I sent them and email and the reply was quite fast forwarding me to book an appointment through their hotline. Again, another weird moment when I realized the number they gave to me was the same as the SOS Suicide hotline. This line had a working period from 9:00 to 15:00 on weekdays and does not work at all during the weekends or holidays. I got confused with the concept. I really got. I was glad I didn’t want to kill myself at that moment…

I called during the working period and again, my disappointment when it went to the voicemail. At that instant I decided to give up on this nonsense and continue my research.

But, on the next day morning, they called me. I was working and I asked if they could call fifteen minutes later so I could get out of work and talk more comfortably. They said yes, but they called me later in the end of the afternoon that day, apologizing for forgetting to call me earlier.

I explained my story, my issues, my concerns, my previous mental health ordeals and I asked for a personal appointment. After listening to me, the person on the other side said that the solution was that I should find a better paid job, and with that my life would get better. I said thank you in my incredulous tone and I hang up. I actually cried in despair, asking myself in what crazy nightmare I was.

Fortunately days after this incident, and thanks to a friend and ex-colleague of mine while I was working in Lisbon, through his recently established psychotherapy online-based company specialized in the support of Portuguese speaking immigrants (won an award from the Marie-Curie Association/University of Cambridge), his company provided me with three months of therapy, under their social responsibility agreement.

These sessions helped me to ‘survive’ the winter and decide that my story in Finland was not over yet. Now if the ‘winter’ strikes again, I know that there’s a solution somewhere.

The sun is shining outside today, and I’m going for a walk.

Immigrants, winter and the labyrinth of mental health